The New Carthage/Part III/Chapter V
Laurent even began to make friends with the riverpirates, fresh water sharks, the blackguards or runners whom honest Tilbak had held at a distance, models whom the painter Marbol repudiated as too tainted.
A peculiarly local breed, the majority of whom first saw the light of day, or whatever took its place, in little waterside alleys, at the back of some fish-factor's shop, or beneath the roof of some cosmopolitan herberge. Blind alleys and culs-de-sac in which these brats swarmed and multiplied to such an extent that one would have thought the dealers in eels and mussels as prolific as their merchandise. Marsh fever and contagious diseases swept away whole litters of these urchins, the heavy trucks of the Nations ran over at least a couple of them each week; but the next day they again swarmed in crowds as compact as those of the day before. Legitimate unions between fishermen and fishwives did not always suffice to foul the floors of these hovels with this human seaweed. Loves as fleeting and as capricious as those of plants presided over the propagation of the species. The sons of a blonde servant like the blonde Germanic inherited their lemon-colored complexions and black eyelashes from their father, an Italian helmsman stranded overnight in the house of the German lodgings-keeper, the baes of that Gretchen. These fat, dumpy children of an apparently northern complexion sprang from the furtive crossing of a Dutch harbor-pilot and a boarder in a Spanish posada. The feverish, mercenary atmosphere of the harbor emancipated this progeny of sailors and girls at an early age. They would avenge themselves upon their three dozen fathers by fleecing the poor devils of sailors as best they might.
The suspicious nature of their business complicated their indeterminate origin. Their lives flowed with the tide of the river. By dint of filling their eyes with lubricating visions, the water communcated its power, its untoward magnetism, to their eyes. Muscular, but graceful, sly, but daring, adroit as Florentine bravi, they were like nixies with alluring voices, greedy fangs and sharp talons. They spoke, as if intuitively, a dozen languages and as many dialects, each one with the local accent, heightening it with a popular raciness, with a slangy timbre with which they, spiced their own patois and by which they could be distinguished from their comrades of other great ports.
Sprung from all races, their disparities harmonized and amalgamated in such a way as to create an autochthonous physiognomy, to brand them with a trademark without analogue, with an indelible and vigorous seal of the land.
Laurent highly valued their feline elegance, their affected indolence. This species of the Antwerpian people quintessentialized the vices and even the perfections of the great city.
Finally, Paridael contracted their mannerisms, their twisting walk, their habit of stretching, their stuffed and slow locution. The raciness of this underworld of the flourishing metropolis seasoned his life, for so long past merely insipid. He adapted himself to his surroundings. On certain days he clad himself in old leather breeches and mangy coat, opened his old wide-skirted overcoat above his short docker's blouse, donned a sailor's cap with a saucy peak, or the pear-shaped silk balloon dear to rural corn-chandlers, or a picaresque wide-brimmed felt, or a comically shaped straw.
Clad in this topical rig he lounged about, disordered, untidy, shuffling his feet along, knocking one shoe against the other. Leaning against the wall of some warehouse, his cheek swollen with a quid, his arms bare, he caressed his biceps with the air of an itinerant tumbler, or, with his hand on the flap of his trousers, pulled up his perpetually falling socks with a cynical gesture, or, looking for some blackguardism, mused and gazed for hours at the stream of passers-by.
Fights were no longer distasteful to him; he scuffled in the streets with a comrade, suffered and distributed blows at random, he provoked and continued scraps that ended in tumbles head over heels. When he came out of these tourneys one would have taken him for the muddy carter whom he had just been rolling about in the gutter.
During the day the runners usually went their own ways. Stretched out upon a pile of bales, upon a light truck, upon a heap of boards or in the bottom of a launch, they slept with one eye open. Toward dusk the decks were suddenly cleared for action, and they came together, as if by scent or instinct, at the same gathering places. Squatting down, looking like a crop of mushrooms sprouting on a misty and dark night, they held veritable sabbaths, discussed some plunder, made up maraudering parties, made brutal wagers, concocted crimes, frightened by their loose talk and their evasions the wenches that tacked about in their seas.
A swarm of bad flies, of invisible insects seemed to simultaneously sting the whole licentious tribe, and then, the whole length of the river and the canals, under the warehouses, amidst the piles of merchandise, there were furious races, pillages like those of the guerilleros, formidable filibusters that excited the police and threw them into consternation.
If he did not pass the night in the open air, Laurent lay with criminals of all species, in the dives at Schelleke of Coude Tortu, of the Impasse de Glaive or of the Montague d'Or. Here he had to pay for his night's lodging in advance.
He stumbled, at the mercy of a worm-eaten and blistering staircase, into an attic hung with filthy bedding suspended like hammocks. The frequenters of the place threw themselves down with little ceremony, haphazard, often completely dressed, without bothering about their neighbors, ages and sexes confused, back to back, stomach to stomach, top to bottom, swarming with vermin, incontinent. This promiscuity determined almost unconscious and somnabulistic copulations, amourous mistakes, often, also, possessions spiced with carnage, scenes of jealousy and rivalry prolonging themselves until cock-crow. And, on these nights charged with ozone, desires crackled like will-o'-the-wisps above a peat-bog. Laurent could hear the rustle and the murmur of panting lips. Bargains were being struck around him, fatal initiations were consummated by the favor of the darkness. Where did reality commence, and nightmare end? The noctambulists turned each other upside down, fighting with arms and legs, picked themselves up in positions like those of the Last Judgment or Fall of the Angels, until, when the tempest of unforgettable shrieking was at its height, a more frightful and more strident clamor than any of the others tore the room full of accomplices with a single jump from their anticipated hell.
Every night the police patrolled these cloacas, the atmosphere of which would have choked a sewer cleaner. From time to time they made a haul, but every night managed a partial pruning.
Preceded by the baes, the policeman shoved the light of the dark lantern beneath the noses of the sleepers. His choice having been made, he shook the second offender, invited him almost cordially to rise, dress and leave. The man obeyed, dully, grumbling like a gagged bear. This formality was renewed so frequently that the others hardly opened their eyes, or, after having bidden their comrade and his officer a joking "Pleasant trip!" fell back asleep without according the scoop any further attention. Tomorrow it would be their turn. And then, there were dead seasons for their business, just like any other. And, when they were out of work, they might just as well pass their days in the workhouse or in the free hotel of the Rue des Béguines …
At daybreak, the lodging-house keeper came to the door of the dormitory, and having gargarized with a cough and a spit, he called out in the professional and somewhat nasal voice of an auctioneer carrying on a sale:
"Up with you, boys! One … two … three!"
Then, without further warning, he took down the straps that held up their pallets, and, at the risk of breaking up the mouldy boards of the floor, tumbled the mass of sleepers brutally out on the floor.
Accustomed to listening to cases in the police-court, whiling away hours with second-offenders and apprentice-criminals who allured him with tales of the exploits of their comrades, delighting in contact with rubbish impregnated with the odor of adventure, Paridael owed it to a miracle that he was not implicated in some affair or other carried off by these footpads who terrorized the district.
He knew more than one member of the celebrated bands established in the blind alleys of populous suburbs; at Stuivenberg, at Doelhof, at Roggeveld and Kerkeveld. The police watched him and took him for an eccentric, a cracked, inoffensive idiot. They watched him more carefully than had been their wont because of his shameless friendship with the cream of old offenders; the Herring, Tailless, Flower o' the Sewer.
He also had had a nickname bestowed upon him. It was not the first; formerly, in his own set, Béjard, Saint-Fardier, Felicité and even Regina had affected to see nothing but the too rosy color of his cheeks, and had called him the Peasant. The people among whom he now lived, on the other hand, noticed the whiteness and the smallness of his hands, the arch of his feminine foot, the fineness of his build; and for the fullbreasted receivers of stolen goods, for the big-fisted and solidly built rogues, he was the Jonker, the Squireen.
How had he been able to make himself loved by all these apaches, instead of being found one morning stabbed and gutted in some back yard, or dragged out of the silt of the Basins, his stomach already swarming with eels?
He excited, on the contrary, among this rabble a sort of superstitious respect and deferential sympathy. They had, moreover, tried him out, and he had come through because of his discretion. The spirit of contumacy brought together the declassed youth and those without the pale of the law.
To flatter and tickle their instinct of combativeness, to justify their life on the fringe of society in their own eyes, to stretch their riotous feelings, to excite their red-blooded bodies to rape, pillage and murderous frenzy, he told them about his reading, during calm hours, transposed Shakespeare for their understanding; Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, but especially the perpetual homicides of the Wars of the Roses, kings and queens of sinful days, stags with horns always gory, spotted with heroism.
More than once, leaving one of these readings, awakened by the vehement acclamation, the quivering of their gladitorial bodies, the fluid of these souls as irresponsible as nature herself, it seemed to him that his dream had just poured itself into reality.
It was among the young runners that the pigeon breeders recruited their youths on the Sundays when races were held. It befell Laurent to enter these relays and, clutching between his teeth the corner of the bag that held the winning dove, to run barefoot, his limbs as elastic as those of a hero of the palæstra.
He discovered the photographer charged by the courts with perpetuating the images of criminals at the issue of their trials, and procured for himself proofs of the entire collection. He became absorbed, with a bitter joy, in the contemplation of that gallery of well known "trouble-bourgeoises" and compared them, without prejudice, with bronze, marble and even with august folk in the flesh. In default of the golden letters illustrating the monuments of civic gratitude, the name of the prisoner gleamed in white letters on the breast of each portrait. This inscription seemed to pillory and tattoo with a red-hot iron even the poor effigy of the subject. On the back of the card figured the description, the sobriquet, the place of birth, the number of the record, and the term of commitment.
Laurent was amused at the decoys and the deceptions in these faces. Certain of the satyr-like masks would have been equally becoming to the most venerated of magistrates and to the chastest of chaste youths.
Following an attack upon a young farm-girl by six peasants from Pouderlee, he frequently went to the commonplace cabaret from which the scamps had rushed to gratify their lust. He was fond of the dilapidated road with its radish-beds, its mangy woods, its hillocks, its border of slender trees barked and notched, without doubt by the same Jacks-of-all-trades who occasionally set upon a less passive victim.
Thanks to his album of patibulary celebrities he recognized one of the heroes of this escapade in a young farmhand of eighteen, condemned by the Court of Assizes, but later freed by the royal pardon. If the excellent likeness of the photograph of this jailbird, one of those to which Paridael determinedly returned, had disconcerted him by the almost seraphic candor of its features, how much more inoffensive did he appear in flesh and bone! There was nothing sinister or even suspicious in the symbol of his soul. A little peasant, rosy and neat, brawny, with a free and easy figure, great, pale, limpid, blue eyes, his cheeks sprinkled with a light down, a fairly large nose with refined nostrils, a wilful mouth, fine blond hair parted at one side,—a rebellious tuft bristling above the ear;—dressed in a coat and breeches of reddish corduroy, shod in cowherd's boots, a red silk kerchief knotted like a cord around his neck; the awkward manner of a choir-boy surprised while stealing apples.
Laurent bought him a drink and made him tell the details of the crime, relishing the contrast between the horrible adventure and the candid air of the ravisher. That sorrowful, sweet voice of a penitent at confession gave him gooseflesh. The curious fellow entered upon the most bestial details without a pang, without a single contraction in his throat, as if he were reciting the plaint of some one else, and not himself, and concluded thus:
"The strangest thing was that, the affair being over, we did not dare leave each other, my comrades and I. And, nevertheless, their voices made me ill. Willeki having proposed to return there and finish the wretched girl off, so as to close her mouth for good, I scampered away at full tilt … A dog was howling to wake the dead. 'It's Lamme Taplaar's Spitz,' I said to myself. In the distance, between the trees and above the moor, the city lights outlined the immense dome of a church, luminous against the black sky. And this thought of the too close city did not bring to my mind any fear of the police. A fine drizzle was falling. My head was on fire, my temples throbbing; I kept in my nose, in my clothes, beneath my nails an odor of flesh and of butchery that drove me sick as does the smell of food after a gorge. I slept excellently that night, and dreamed of the great white church against the sky …"
The chances of birth, education, and of manners, as well as the inconsistency of nature offered Paridael many comparisons for his discouraging philosophy.
Before a building under construction he became indignant at seeing plastic and decorative youths breaking their backs and wearing themselves out as plasterers and mason's assistants in order to erect a palace for some gouty old reprobate. The owner conferred phlegmatically with the architect and the obsequious builder, without according the slightest attention to the workmen who were barely able to carry their loads. But as much as the rich man reeked with self-sufficiency, showed himself to be grotesque and vulgar, so much did these artisans, trampled down and oppressed though they were, display a simplicity and courage, carrying their coarse clothes with fine grace.
And Laurent imagined the mason's assistant brought up after the fashion of rich people, dressed like an English "swell" or "masher," hurried into the wholesome and eurythmic fatigue of sports, and his superiority, thus transformed, over the young Saint-Fardiers and the weak, undersized striplings of their group. Often the whim seized him to empty his purse into the hands of an apprentice and say: "Here, you fool, save your strength, preserve your youth, and fresh face, laze, dream, love, abandon yourself!"
From his youth, at the house of the Dobouziez', he had condemned unhealthy arts, too heavy and too exclusive labor, work that brought only one side of the body into play, operations depending upon an unchangeable motion of the back or shoulder, the implacably repeated effort of the same muscular agents. He cursed the workshops that were creating monsters, the manufactories, the blast furnaces, the coal mines in which hordes of young men were defaced, injured, spoiled. And he cherished the idea of an Utopia, dreamed of a new and frankly pagan rebirth in which the cult of the nude, free and absolute, would flower again, the adoration of expressive bodies and unveiled flesh. Why could he not surround himself with those who had been freed from labor, with a court of plastic human figures? Instead of statues and pictures, he would have collected, or rather selected, human masterpieces. And in his enthusiasm for physical beauty, he blasphemed these words of Genesis: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." Moral leprosy and physical deformity had no other origin. The law of Darwin was confirming that of Jehovah.
Then, by a strange contradiction, he began to acknowledge the imperious and tragic charm of these days. His contemporaries offered a beauty that was characteristic and psychic, and, if not as regular, at least more infinitely picturesque and less sculptural than that of bygone generations. He reconciled the two kinds of beauty, associated the nude of the past and the costume of the present, modernized the antique, created Antinous in the knitted vest of a bargeman, Venuses togged out like cigar-girls, Bacchantes as coffee-sorters and crossing-sweepers, Hercules' as butcher's boys and market-porters. Mercury incarnated himself in a runner with a finely formed back and tapering calves like those of the bronze statue of Giovanni da Bologna; Apollo put on the uniform of a fugleman; Bacchus the giver of wine had as his double an incorrigible drinker. A gang of navvies at work, a crew of pavers, plump and bending over their toil, on the curb of a street, reminded him of companies of discus throwers exercising in the palaestra, and since his return from the banks of the Scheldt, he could imagine no bas-relief with a more perfect rhythm than that of the movement of a brigade of the Nations. On Sundays and Mondays Paridael danced, until break of day, in the dives of the quarters made dramatic by riots between soldiers and people, or in the musicos of the Quartier des Bateliers, where runners and sea- faring folk gathered.
And what dances they were! What loures, what bourees, what dizzy shindys accompanied by a triangle, a clarinet and an accordeon! The vulgar debauchery of these sprightly fellows; their figured contortions, their swift, sudden leaps into the air, the dull twistings of their bodies, the firing and galvanic knitting of their muscles!
A hole in the bellows of the accordion brought about a lamentable flight of melody, and at each pressure upon the punctured note, the sound escaped in a moribund wail.
During the pause between two dances, while the couples walked about and paid into the hands of the "tenancier" their money for these dances, the watering pot of one of the waiters laid the dust by drawing wet festoons upon the floor.
Then the clarinets started up again, the dancers returned to the floor, and boots and slippers again began to stamp.
Middle-aged street-walkers, their cheeks fiery with paint, condescended to skip about with calker's apprentices shining with white resin and pitch, their breeches stuffed into their stockings, who jostled eagerly against these matrons clad in percaline or plaid satin evening dresses.
In the promenade around the dancing floor goodhumored old sea-dogs, sprightly cabin-boys, fishermen smelling of sea- weed and fish-gall, sat at tables, tippling and making the women who straggled about drink out of their glasses, calling them and despotically drawing them down on their laps.
Sea-folk were meeting lightermen, the bosses of beurts and their cabin-boys, less sunburnt, less chapped, rosier, immature, their ears projecting and pierced with silver rings.
In the swirl of dust, of sweat and tobacco as acrid and as black as peat, the forms of the dancers darkened or emerged in fragments. Hats, caps, suroits or tarred zuidwesters, curly heads came to the surface of the heavy cloud.
By the aid of a gleam of light, when the entrance or the exit of a couple wafted a momentary draft through the hall, one could see blue jerseys as close-fitting as tights, oil-skins with large collars, bare, full-breasted bosoms, tight-fitting breeches, a herding of haunches and hips, a blowing about of short skirts, fishing boots, tight stockings showing through their light meshes the rose of a more or less firm thigh. It was a skirmish of heads close together; lips meeting avidly; eyes darting baiting gleams; sighs of languor, ticking laughs, embraces, insinuating movements of the knee, bursts of passion badly restrained …
On the morning after these wild nights, Paridael, greedy for air that could be breathed, hurried to meet at Doel his gang of comrades, the river-pirates.
Quarantine was held at Doel. The service-launch met all the boats coming up the Scheldt, the doctor looked over clearance papers and health-billets, and boats coming from the Orient or from Spain, where cholera reigned like a King of Dahomey, were forced to anchor there for a week, the old Fort Frederic.
Already five boats were stationed there, motionless, sullen Leviathans, their fires out, their steam cut off, their smokestacks despoiled of their long banners of smoke. They flew the sinister yellow flag which cut them off, temporarily, from society, the only one which kept at a distance even the runners, who, however, were difficult to discourage.
But the pleasure was only deferred; it would be sufficient for the infected boats or those only under observation to finish their term of quarantine and draw in the sulphurous flag, for the swarm of ruffians who had been lying in wait for them, as a cat watches a bird upon which he cannot get his claws, and who had been made more avid for the prey by their long wait, to fall upon them with the inevitable despotism of a new scourge.
Until then, in order to keep themselves upon the alert, the runners had cast their choice upon The Dolphin, a great Australian three-master just in from the Dutch East Indies and Indo-China. A pilot-boat, profiting by the high tide, had been towing her up from Flushing to Antwerp and she was due to pass Doel at three in the afternoon.
While waiting for the promised ship to rise, from the direction of Bats, above the Polders, our scoundrels flung themselves down upon the grassy dike, behind and below which sank the placid village which they terrorized, like a descent of the Normans in the year one thousand.
Their presence at Doel added a further unwholesome charm to the lazaretto-like atmosphere that for the last month had been hovering above these stolid boatmen, proof against all epidemics. Oh, the cemetery of fishermen and castaways in which they had recently interred four victims of cholera!
The deans of the worthy brotherhood, old stagers and dreadful, hairy fellows, mingled with their worthy apprentices. Under the large peaks of their caps the latter showed crop-eared or curly heads, mischievous, strangely prepossessing, but vicious, deflowered by blows of the lash and by debauchery. Runaway sailors, pseudo-pilots, several of them not yet over the effects of a night of debauchery, were dozing, their haunches in the air, their hands clasped under their necks. Others were lying on their backs, their weight upon their elbows, their chins in their hands, in the pose of ambushed sphynxes or malevolent, lurking rocks.
Winking and blinking their eyes, they gazed at the horizon and seemed to charm the yellow-flagged boats into immobility.
From time to time, to ease their impatience, the runners would jump to their feet, yawn, stretch, shake their legs, regretfully and slowly practice a few wrestler's grips, run a few steps, then fall back little by little into their expectant immobility.
There were a few restless ones among them who, like wasps, teased and set upon the sleepers, or paddled about barefoot in the mud and came out shod with a black cothurnus.
But one of the lookouts had spied the schooner! A truce to all laziness and gaping! At the sight of their prey they thought of nothing but their game, they kicked the sleepers, ran to the little creek where they had stored their canoes, threw in their decoys and provisions, bent to the oars and set about making for the river. A critical operation, for the creek was narrow, the boats touched each other, and in their stormy selfishness each one wanted to push out before the others. All of them bustled and struggled at the same time, each determined not to cede the path to his neighbor and rival.
Then, a brawl, invectives, a scuffle. To arrive there first, a runner would throw aside not only a comrade's boat, but the comrade himself. Moreover, it was no longer a question of friendship; the instinct of greed came to the fore, and friends who had just been eating from the same plate and drinking from the same bottle glared at each other as though they wished to tear each other to pieces.
But profiting by this squabble, which was threatening to turn into a naval engagement, one boat, then another, then a third, manned by more watchful lads, gently squirmed between the antagonists and were craftily making for the open river.
At this sight, the quarrellers suspended hostilities, and the bulk of the fleet detached itself from the shore.
The laggards spurted every oar, silent, worried, swallowing their envious spite, bent upon surpassing their competitors at all costs, meditating windfalls and treacherous blows.
They manœuvred so well that they overtook their forerunners.
And now they played a waiting game; an equal force and energy seemed to animate all of them; no single crew was gaining noticeably on the others. Their panting breathing kept time with the rhythm of their rowing; they bent backward and forward spasmodically, the tholes moaned at each stroke of the oars, and the water dropping from the blades dragged over the surface of the water a trail of carbuncles.
From the vessel, the point aimed at by this passionate regatta, they had seen the coming of this flotilla which, from a distance, looked like a bank of migratory fish, so compact and close-formed was it. A crowd hurried to the deck. The captain and the crew suspected and smelled in these devilish rowers emissaries from the shopkeepers and purveyors of the port.
The captain, for whom this was not a first encounter with these landsharks, changed color and commenced to swear like a devil. The sailors, although they had plenty of ground for bitterness against the race, pretended anger, but only grumbled with their lips; they were intrigued by the idea of the pleasures, paid for at usurious rates, but so copious and so intense withal, procured for them by these middlemen.
At a cable's length from the boat the first canoes hailed the captain, who greeted their overtures with a recrudescence of oaths and even threatened, if they did not decamp quickly, to shoot them like a flock of wild ducks. But the runners, incomparable dodgers, possessed their maritime code. They avoided its penalties as adroitly as they shunned the rapids and shoals of the Scheldt. The commands of the Englishman were pure rhodomontade! He would take care not to get into a nasty scrape. No Belgian law protected him from having his boat invested by victualer's clerks.
Thus, strong in the connivance of the law, the rascals pretended a wheedling conciliation in proportion as the raging man hurled them, in default of other shot, the largest projectiles from his arsenal of oaths.
While this was going on, other crews, dropping their oars to use grappling-hooks, grappled the stern of the ship, climbed hand over hand to the deck, and crowded there before the captain had come to the end of his chaplet of imprecations.
The crew no longer struggled, or only paid slight attention to their orders. In truth, the sailors covenanted with the invaders. The approach to port had softened these hardy fellows, discipline had been relaxed; they were as puerile and distracted as schoolboys on the eve of vacation. From the mouth of the Scheldt, in the less biting wind that blew from the land, these prisoners had sniffed the bouquet of future liberties and noisily sniffed the odor of the hospitable brothel.
Far from bearing a grudge against these wily pilots who flung themselves at their necks only to fleece them anew by exploiting the sudden pangs of their passions, the good-natured fellows welcomed them as heralds of approaching blow-outs and relaxations.
No less than thirty boats, each one manned by two or three runners, clung to the carcass of The Dolphin with the ineluctable stubbornness of an octopus. While the sailors organized a show of resistance, pushing the invaders lightly off to the larboard, the latter were boarding them from the starboard. Pushed back from the stern, the rascals threw themselves aft, where, massing together for a single stroke, they began mounting upon each other's shoulders.
One climbed upon the shoulders or sat upon the head of another, who balanced all his weight upon the shoulder-blades of a third. The bottom man supported the weight of another comrade, upon whom a fifth had just perched, and so it kept up. The men at the bottom whined, panted, snorted, begged them to hurry, exhausted themselves; the men on top romped and joked; heels threatened to beat in jaw-bones, hands knotted themselves into the hair, sweaters tore with a sharp rip, eyes were blinded by thighs and hips, and thus agglutinated, tumbling over each other, they called to mind the free, fine fellows of the kermesses, who climbed one atop the other until the highest man could fetch down, for the glory of all, the prizes on an inaccessible greasy mast. At each oscillation of the boat, which was continuing to plunge along, the human pyramid threatened to crumble into the river; the frail canoe upon which the whole structure rested risked capsizing with its whole cargo.
The temerity of the runners stupefied the captain himself, and his contempt for this riff-raff changed into the inexpressible admiration that every AngloSaxon has for dare-devil exploits.
Courage! One more effort and they are masters of the place!
After boarding her the first thing to do was to share the spoils. A delicate partition, for a hundred birds of prey could be counted for every twenty or thirty souls manning the schooner. Harassed, pulled from every quarter, called in all languages and from all sides at the same time, the sailors did not know who to listen to. The deck took on the appearance of a stock-exchange. From group to group the value represented by each head of the crew was being debated. The veterans intimidated the weak and the novices; crafty ones forced the booby s to give place. Some of the runners began to retreat. But the majority quarrelled vigorously and bitterly; the talk grew livelier and became diatribe. Teeth were shown, fists clenched, foxes became wolves. The altercations of the shore began all over again; more envenomed by reason of having been deferred, they were now being decided for good. A single hand-to-hand scuffle was enough to commence a general brawl. They cuffed each other, took each other by the throat, knocked each other down, snatched at each other like mastiffs, fought tooth and nail, and, if they thought themselves worsted, resorted to underhand blows.
The sailors were careful not to interfere in these passages at arms of which they represented the object. Moreover, they were too crafty to thwart this settlement of accounts. They made a circle about the fighters, passive, scared, judging the outcome. Their booty would belong to the victors. These ferocious struggles unloosed by the petty tradesmen flattered, perhaps, the great prodigals who were bound to melt their last yellow-boys in some furnace or other. A black eye, a cut lip, a tooth knocked out, a few cuts and contusions decided the victory. Sprawled out, the victor's knee resting heavily upon their chests, a few gave up the struggle before being utterly worsted. They pitifully rushed back into their boats and beat toward Doel, but followed The Dolphin from a distance and pursued their lucky competitors with jeers.
Now these latter were cooling off, stanching the blood from their wounds, repairing the ruins and the breeches in their accoutrement and beneath the buccaneer, heroic in his hour, there appeared the sordid trafficker, the cash-box trickster.
They fell back upon the sailors just as, after a decisive battle between two troops of ants, the victors hurry to carry off the largest green-flies of the conquered.
Baskets of food, packages of tobacco, boxes of cigars, plugs of cavendish, and above all casks of liquor, beer, wine, whisky, gaseous imitation champagne, Bordeaux more or less adulterated and doctored with alcohol, spiced and peppered so as to take the jaw-bone off a bull, emerged and bubbled up as if by magic from the mysterious hiding places where the fighters had concealed them. The battle-field became a marketplace, and the carnage a bivouac. Corks leaped up and bung-holes perforated the casks. Case after case was tapped, mugs and glasses refilled, and the sailors began to respond to the advances of their insinuating captors. The foul-mouthed ruffians became demure and almost mincing.
The officers contented themselves with supervising the execution of the necessary manœuvres, and to be certain, put their own hands to the job. And gradually the ambient languor won them.
"Oh! let's hurry and finish the dull and changeless work as quickly as we can, and strip off our duties with our uniforms; humanize ourselves, yes, even make ourselves animals! And while we are waiting, why not taste the refreshments that these ruffians have brought us? For the last three weeks, under the pretext that it was brandy, the steward has been serving us only slops, and our stomachs reject sea-biscuit, and salted and preserved meat!"
Thus monologued the officers, as they paced the deck. The austere captain himself felt weaker and more indulgent than was his wont.
A runner divined this feeling, for he approached the captain, and with a coaxing gesture, poured him out a bumper of the sparkling mixture: "A glass of champagne, Captain!" The sea-wolf looked the brazen fellow through and through, ready to box his ears, but the irritated oath expired between the wisps of his grey mustache, ventured a supercilious grin, and, tantalized, accepted the glass, drained it at a single gulp, smacked his lips, and tendered it to the cupbearer that he might fill it up again.
The shrewd, strange fellow who had just led him into temptation so successfully, did not cease intriguing the captain, a straight-laced Presbyterian who was also somewhat of a Puritan. Like the majority of his fellows, this runner had disguised himself as a midshipman. He had the build of a cabin-boy, the face of a girl, and fuller hips and a more finely molded body than the other ruffians of his crew.
"Where the devil did that band of downright bandits ever find such nice recruits?" muttered the respectable captain, and, more bothered by the wheedling expression of the cup-bearer than he was willing to admit, he was about to walk away when the pretended midshipman threw his arms about the captain's neck, and thus revealed his double disguise.
"Damnation!" yelled the captain, seeing stars. "They'll finish by bringing the whole of their cursed brothel on board!"
"At your service, Captain!"
And laughingly she pointed out the lieutenants pestered by runners, in whom, being good connoisseurs, they had not delayed sharing the agreeable surprise of their captain! But The Dolphin was now entering the roadstead.
After a last turn in the river, the panorama of Antwerp stretched out in all its majestic and grandiose splendor. For more than a league's length the city offered to the eyes of the newcomers an imposing view of warehouses, markets, gables, towers and belfries, dominated by the pile of Notre Dame. This lighthouse of good advice warned the travellers against the wiles and the ambushes of perdition stretched at the foot of the cathedral as the serpent curled in the shade of the tree of life. Twilight was coloring the admirable monument with rose, glistening in the lacy stone-work, and at the same time the belfry was giving full flight to the notes of its carillon …
But the sailors on The Dolphin no longer raised their eyes to that height, nor heard the voices of the vesperal chimes. Why had the high pile not been visible from the mouth of the Scheldt, and the great bell had not been audible from Doel? The emissaries of the devil had beaten the messengers of heaven. Even when they found themselves in the presence of these good spirits they had ears only for the promises of the brokers of pleasure, and eyes only for the narrow alleys whose windows were red like signals of warning.
As soon as the sailor set foot on short the runners led him off without protest to the clandestine dispensaries where the lodging-house keeper was in partnership with the prostitute to detain him and fleece him. The one attacked his vigor, the other busied himself with his goods. The girl having worn him out, the pimp would pluck him without difficulty.
In order to deliver him bound hand and foot to their masters, the runners advanced him a part of his wages, and then made him turn over to his hosts the hand full of gold amassed at the price of a labor as painful as torture. From thenceforth the poor devil no longer belonged to himself.
He tore himself from the arms of the street-walker only to get drunk with the ruffian.
He was saddled with all sorts of junk at exorbitant prices. He paid ten and twenty times their value in order to present them to friends, to those who had just loaded him with a bottle of outrageous perfume, with loud knick-knacks, with shell mirrors, with English cutlery, with imitation jewelry, claptrap and glass beads with which civilizers could no longer fascinate Kaffirs or Sioux. He was never allowed out alone, nor permitted to leave the confines of the district.
All day long he leaned against the bar of the public room. The walls were hung with placards: advertisements of Old Tom gin, the red triangles of pale ale, the brown squares of stout. Chromolithographs from Christmas Numbers alternated with epileptic pictures from the Police News, just as on the sideboard the sirups and elixirs tasting like pommade stood next to the corrosive liquors.
In order to obtain the right to perpetually gaze at the creature chosen for his affection, he swallowed all the poisons displayed. Little by little, under the influence of these libations, she seemed to take on the appearance of a madonna throned in a sanctuary: the smoke of his pipe became incense, the sideboard was reredos, the liquors composed the subjects of stained-glass windows, and spouting oraisons did not free him from the fervor of his stupidity. Then a mocking laugh would bring him back to the feeling of the place in which he found himself, and the goddess whom he invoked.
If his drunkenness turned into frenzy, if he made a racket and struggled a bit, these accesses lasted only a few moments.
She was even ordered to provoke them by her coquetry, for not only was his jealousy unprofitable, but in order to be forgiven his whims, he would be more pliable and easy-going than ever. To again conquer his sullen mistress there was no folly that he would not commit, no expensive whim he would not gratify.
Each morning the lodging-house keeper gave him a louis from his little hoard, and every night he had conscientiously spent his tiny sum. He paid on the spot as if he possessed the purse of Fortunatus.
And his astonishment on the day when the boss gave him a bill showing that he owed almost the double of what he thought he had. This time the pigeon kicked over the traces and wanted to leave for good, but in anticipation of a scuffle, the lodging-house keeper had paid his usual satellites, and they overpowered the recalcitrant boarder. He was also threatened with the naval police, a mysterious power unknown to this simple soul, and which he imagined as severe as the Inquisition. A great dejection followed his will to revolt. Rather than go to prison, he would sell his carcass.
And here began the most sorrowful phase of the transaction.
The Merchant of Venice took only a pound of flesh from his insolvent debtor; the Shylocks of Antwerp morally hacked to pieces their poor debtor in raising up a series of tribulations for him; they forced him to desert, procured him a new berth, took the advance pay he received, forced him to sign another contract, took his pay again, and kept up this game until the consular authorities got wind of it and prepared to act.
They had squeezed him dry like an orange. But to believe them he had not yet paid his debts. But he had become compromising, and it became necessary to get rid of him. For fear that he would speak and have them caught they hid him in a hovel outside the fortifications.
Finally they bartered the poor human merchandise, so greatly wronged, for a last time, to an unscrupulous captain, and, under cover of a dark night, a runner, always ready for risky jobs, the same runner who had cajoled and intoxicated him on board the Dolphin, loaded the poor rebel on a skiff and quietly conducted him on board the smuggler.
Hardly returned to his element, to his rude labor, the sailor no longer thought of the vicissitudes of his last harbor. The memory of recent humiliations was drowned by the wind of the open sea.
So thoroughly that after a prolonged trip the poor devil, all ready to begin his disastrous experience all over again, would give himself body and soul to the evil Tritons of the banks of the Scheldt.
In short, there was no one but these pressers to offer him absolute refreshment!
At the ports of call in the Antipodes, in those vehement climates, in those fiery lands peopled by beings with lemonish flesh, reptilian women and effeminate men, among populations as yellow and as feline as their fevers, Europeans hold their lust in leash, or lend themselves to vice only with the repugnance of an apoplectic who has a pallet of blood drawn from him. Or they go to the brothel as a danger, drunkenly, with an air of bravado, and urged to stay there, debauch themselves furiously in the opium-smoking dens. An intoxicating flower, spices, poisons and the odorous atmosphere whip them and pack them off headlong to an exquisite voluptuousness followed by stupor and remorse …
Child-like and mystic souls, tasting the pleasure only when accompanied by an undercurrent of intimacy and fervor, they associate with their loves the fresh, steady, set breezes of northern seas, the lenifying temperatures of occidental shores, the virile gusts, even the crabbed cordiality of the squalls, the sharp shifting of the wind after the enervating caress of the trade-winds; the tender smile of the north, the friendly curtains of clouds drawn over the implacable glare, and the almost lustral kiss of the first fog …
In return, they reproached themselves for their commerce with pagan women as if it had been a sacreligious rite.
And they never looked back upon these crimes without there also rising up before them the nightmare of the anguish of typhoons and cyclones during which the occult priestesses of Siva, with the winding and the blowing of trumpets, seemed to pump boiling oil from the sea, only to substitute for it the tellurian lava and the fusing metals of the firmament …